Xiaolu Guo is as outspoken as ever. The author and filmmaker’s new book, Once Upon a Time in the East, is a raging, passionate examination of her early life she doesn’t like the term 'memoir' because it implies 'either you are dying or have done something amazingly heroic'. For Guo’s fans though, there is plenty of amazement to be found, largely in Guo’s tough survival. Originally given away as a baby to a peasant couple, she is given back when they can’t feed her, and passed to her grandparents in a crushingly poor fishing village, where her illiterate grandmother suffers tremendous cruelty at the hands of her husband.
Guo’s book is startlingly frank. She doesn’t shy away from her relentlessly difficult relationship with her mother, her experience as a teenage victim of sexual abuse, or her bitterness at being brought into a society that constantly prioritises men. In 1993, she starts a new chapter at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy alongside greats like Jia Zhangke and is swept up in the city’s 1990s art scene – think illicit, naked shows on the Great Wall – before winning a scholarship to Britain.
While a personal reflection, Guo’s work is also an unashamed call for women’s rights and broader creative freedoms across an artistic community that transgresses national borders.
What made you decide to write your own story?
I’ve published pieces about my story before in different newspapers and friends told me they thought these fragments of my childhood were amazing, and suggested I write a book. Actually, I wrote a novel many years ago called Village of Stone based on my own experience, but that was still fiction. So I decided it was time to revisit this – I’ve now turned past 40 and it was time for this book, which I think of as reflections on early life.
In Chinese we call those little fragments of story san wen, prose essays or small prose fragments, and it’s a very natural form for me to write in, especially for this story based on personal experiences. My favourite authors from the 1920s and 30s, like Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, Yu Dafu, all wrote san wen and I loved it.
How tough was writing Once Upon A Time In The East? The book is incredibly personal.
I thought it was going to be very tough to write but actually, it was the quickest book I’ve written. The most difficult parts, of course, were the first sexual experiences as a teenager. But when I was writing I was thinking that although it’s personal, it’s also a collective experience as women from the Third World.
Emotionally it was more difficult dealing with the early years. I had so much love and sorrow for those people I lived with in Shitang village. I felt so sorry for my grandmother’s life, and after she passed away, I thought about how traditional Confucian oppression is so deeply negative for womanhood. It’s scarred generation after generation.
Did the switch to writing in English impact on your sense of identity?
There are many layers of identity for me. When I came to the UK I first recognised this idea of national identity, falling into a foreign land. In an old-fashioned view, as a writer you are bound to your linguistic identity, but I was born in China, and I write in English. The issue of my linguistic identity used to bother me, but then I went to live in Paris and Berlin, and suddenly identity was just no longer so important. But it’s as much about style as language. In the West, the novel is the main form, and I often felt slightly drowned in this writing form. The last six books I wrote in English were novels, and I cried for this type of simple, real-life writing, which doesn’t have to have continuity but is just fragments, essays. It felt very natural to return to this form.
How do you think of yourself now – Chinese or British?
Those films and novels based in Britain forced me to become a cosmopolitan person. I am who I am; I am Chinese by birth, I am European by spirit, and I’m British by law. I think these are just technical definitions. My story is a very collective, universal story – a young woman trying to make a home in a foreign land and
make her own voice heard.
Once Upon a Time in the East is 8.20USD on Amazon.
Three to read
Extraordinary novels written by Xiaolu Guo
Village of Stone (2005)
Village of Stone focuses on two urbanites living in Beijing who one day receive an anonymous gift – a dried eel. Sent from the protagonist’s home fishing village, the gift forces her to confront her past life, with all its poverty and cruelty.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2008)
Z arrives in London with only broken English. Her English improves over each chapter, detailing her relationship with her English boyfriend, a bisexual vegetarian also experiencing an existential crisis.
I Am China (2015)
Literary translator Iona Kirkpatrick uncovers a romantic story of revolution when translating letters from exiled musician Jian. He is also being hunted by former lover Mu in Beijing, and Kirkpatrick decides to bring the two back together.
By Helen Roxburgh